The influential cinema magazine Sight & Sound hailed the Netflix-funded Roma (2017) as its “film of the year” – which was no real surprise, given a glowing review in which it called it “the film of [writer/director] Alfonso Cuarón’s career”.
Less expected were the Academy Award nominations – ten of them – for a black-and-white foreign language film with a complete unknown, Yalitza Aparicio, a Mixtec-speaking actress, making her debut in the lead role. Alongside Yargos Lathimos’s The Favourite (2017), Roma heads the pack of Oscar hopefuls.
But whatever happens in Los Angeles’s Dolby Theatre in February, Mexican cinema is enjoying a global moment. Netflix has made huge investments in the region, funding the professional aspirations of scores of arthouse filmmakers directing blockbuster series on the side. Filmmakers across the country now have greater access to subsidies and tax breaks than ever before, as well as increased logistical and financial support from local branches of the federal government.
This is a sharp contrast to Cuarón’s early career in national television in the early 1990s, when the domestic cultural landscape was dominated by media giant Televisa. Now, the Mexican film industry is flourishing and receiving a lot of attention globally. Highly respected and popular film festivals at Guadalajara (founded in 1986) and Morelia (2003) have been joined by new arrivals, including the Chihuahua International Film Festival, first hosted in November 2018.
Spanning 2,700 miles of the US-Mexican border, the desert state of Chihuahua is not known principally for its films. It’s a deadly hotbed of crime, where people-smuggling syndicates take advantage of desperate families, and the desert has become a weapon in US immigration policy. But in this epic stretch of arid land, some of the first feature films were made – predating Hollywood productions.
In 1914, the rebel leader Pancho Villa – who was to become one of North America’s first film stars – is thought to have signed a deal with US corporation, Mutual Films, affording them the right to screen his frontier battles to New York audiences. Spectators were treated to snippets of Villa re-enacting his early life as a revolutionary with executions and battle scenes, some reenacted in better light or on less dusty tracks to make for better visuals.
A century later, once again, the desert serves as the setting for new cinematic projects. Since January 2018, the Film Commission of Chihuahua State has facilitated the production of 25 films in the region, welcoming directors from the rest of Mexico and other parts of the Americas. This activity has brought new signs of life to a barren landscape, buoyed in 2018 with the Netflix acquisition of ABQ studios in Albuquerque, in New Mexico – also part of the Chihuahua desert – which has also been met with optimism among investors and policymakers south of the Rio Grande.
As is case in film festivals the world over, VIPs were parachuted in for the Chihuahua festival. In Mexico, regional urban hubs have to compete with the capital for investment, attention and audiences – a tough assignment for somewhere like Chihuahua despite its cinematic history.
Mexico’s feted “tres amigos” – Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro – made their names through recourse to foreign finance channelled to the capital. So the odds remain stacked against practitioners and festivals based in the provinces, but government funding for films in the Chihuahua region is a welcome sign that this might change.
With his latest feature, Cuarón is keeping attention firmly focused on his homeland. Roma is both a departure and a return for the London-based director. The film is a loving homage to his childhood in 1970s Colonia Roma, a cosmopolitan middle-class neighbourhood near the heart of Mexico City, on his own terms. It is visually stunning, and joins productions such as Alonso Ruizpalacios’ Gueros (2014) in capitalising on the city’s photogenic streets and distinctive modernist architecture.
Shot in black and white with painterly attention to detail in the composition of individual frames, cinematic visions of this kind have proved a hit with critics as well as young, internationally mobile audiences. Roma’s soundtrack is so meticulous in recreating the ambient sounds of the cityscape that only cinemas which met specific technical standards were granted rights to screen the film.
Success for Roma at the Oscars would be a huge feather in the cap for Mexico City and for the country’s film industry. But Hollywood is not the only place that a local filmmaker with global aspirations might look. A post-Brexit scenario in which the British Council has prioritised Mexico as a strategic partner makes enhanced links in audio-visual production, distribution and exhibition a credible proposition.
Incoming Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, as he is affectionately known, has pledged more support to the creative sectors but less tolerance of US influence on policy making and regional development. It remains to be seen if recent initiatives will transform the Chihuahua Desert into a permanent setting for international filmmakers and spectators in a national film industry hitherto dominated by Mexico City, subservient, in turn, to Sunset Boulevard.